by Brian Walsh
So what’s wrong with being “born again”? In my last blog I suggested that the term “born again” is a ‘shibboleth.’ You remember where this word ‘shibboleth’ comes from, right? In Judges chapter 12 the Gileadites engage in genocide against the Ephraimites. But how do you know who an Ephraimite is and who is not an Ephraimite?
Well, when the men of Gilead met someone who they suspected of being an Ephraimite they asked him to say ‘shibboleth’ and if they replied ‘sibboleth’ then their accent and their inability to make the ‘sh’ sound in this word was proof that they were Ephraimites and they were then killed.
So when I say that being ‘born again’ is a shibboleth I am saying that this term functions as a foundational boundary marker of who is in and who is out, and that such boundary markers are a matter of death to those who are out.
Wait a minute, you say. Is Walsh saying that born again Christians want to kill anyone who is not one of them? Umm, well … yes, that is what I am saying.
Think about if for a minute. If you are not born again, then what are you? Well, you are not a Christian. And in ‘born again’ theology what happens to those who are not born again? They go to hell! So yes, I am saying that this particular shibboleth functions as all shibboleths function, to justify death – eternal death and damnation – to any who cannot or will not use this particular language.
That’s a bit of a stretch you say. It’s not as if born again Christians are going around killing people. At worse, their theology leaves the killing for God to accomplish.
I’m not so sure. To begin with, as a campus minister and lecturer I have met hundreds of people who have been killed by born again Christianity. Hundreds of people who have had their faith sucked out of them because they could not say ‘born again’ with the proper evangelical accent and enthusiasm. Hundreds of people who had their Christian faith killed because it could not conform to the constricted and narrow theology of the evangelicalism in which they were raised.
So yes, born again Christianity is killing people. Indeed, it tends to sacrifice its own children, and such a thing is not uncommon amongst idolatrous religions. And you may reply that this is a metaphorical killing. But killing it is.
Murder by metaphor.
But born again Christianity also engages in literal murder. On one level this is a theology that anticipates the suffering and violent deaths of millions of the world’s inhabitants during the Great Tribulation. It ought not surprise anyone that a faith that will condemn to hell those who will not use its particular shibboleth would then also have an eschatology that anticipates precisely such a genocide.
But there is one other way in which this is a murderous faith. There is no coincidence in the linking of the Religious Right and evangelical ‘born again’ faith. I know that there is a shift underway in the evangelical movement that has seen, or perhaps might see, the waning of the Religious Right. Check these sites out for more on that:
And I see in this a movement of the Spirit of God. But we cannot move forward as a Christian community that seeks justice in the context of a dynamic relationship to Jesus and the kingdom that he brings, without facing the horrors of a born again Christianity that has legitimated a conservative politics that supports increased military expenditures, the ‘war on terror’, nationalism, unjust trade agreements, the death penalty, decreased support for the poorest of the poor, extreme individualism, capitalist greed, and despoliation of God’s good creation.
Okay, so I’ve been on a bit of a rant here. And I know that some of my friends are going to be upset with what I’ve written. But it seems to me that we have to face up to the evil that this ‘born again’ movement has been.
I was born again when I was sixteen years old. And it was a rebirth. I look upon that process of my conversion as a birth experience. My life, my true life as a child of God, as a son of my Father, began when I turned to Jesus. But the first time I walked into an evangelical church where everyone talked the talk of being ‘born again’ I had a disquieting feeling that what they were talking about wasn’t what I experienced when my life was turned to following Jesus and his kingdom. I’ve struggled with this all of my life.
So what do I do? Give up on the language of being ‘born again’ because it has become a murderous shibboleth? Or insist on reclaiming it?
You know, it’s one little metaphor in a Bible rich with metaphor. I think I can let this one go.